A Flight of Birds and a Bat

On Forgetting to Buy a Newspaper the Day Before Yesterday
     -    The Magpie   -    Idyll, with Siren    -    The Flight Lesson     
Circle, with Penguins      -      Heaven and Earth   -     When Wren     -      Arioso for William Russo   
The Cardinal Is    
 -      Angel Food     -    Omen     -      People and Bats

"The Magpie", “Idyll, with Siren,” “Heaven and Earth,” and “Omen” originally appeared in The NewYorker.        


On Forgetting to Buy a Newspaper the Day Before Yesterday

I turned with relief
to the leaves of this tree.

No wren edits
the oriole’s repetitious report.

All news is of note,

Translated the chickadee’s
two to read:

See! See!
Yet feel I fail, fail.

These Chinese will
not let me through their Wall.

But with what cheer
this… Nothing. Gone.

Instead, eclectic
catbird’s gray miao

grins familiar
from the tree: That’s All,

Folks. Oh Chinese,
translate me!

And with what cheer
this cardinal catches fire.

While the goldfinch:
Look! Ha!

I wear the sun
on my back.

Crow: And I the night
by broad daylight,

And you?
What? Yesterday…Tomorrow.

Then silence
dropped its spider,

and still each web I see
reminds me.

© Jon Swan

The Magpie

is sharp, unshy --
an eloquent, raucous,
among birds, who lives in a nest made
of hair, grass, mud,
and down from thistles.
He is clever and he can be taught to talk,
but prefers to converse
in mellow whistles,
harsh qua-quas, terse
cacks, and with his claxon
can sound a tocsin
for bunting, vireo, Brewerís sparrow,
and for the narrow,
rubiginous wren.

Cousin to jay and crow,
his flight erratic, and his manners low,
he is a disorganization fellow.
A joiner of clans, still he is singular,
a criss-cross angular,
dissenting member
whose regular retreat
is west of Chicago, east of the Beat.

Unscrupulous, half-daft,
black fore, green aft,
wary of gust and chary of gale
(half of him is tail),
to his own devices,
this slightly haywire
country squire
proves a deft
committer of theft,
collector of things,
of coins, clips, pins, and any dazzling bit
he can light upon. Junk or gem,
itís the same to him.
He simply swipes it,
and makes an exit.

His marital problems are few.
The Britannica expert has noted
that, when his spouse is dead,
he (the pie)
ďin common with the raven, the jay,
and many birds of prey,
has a remarkable capacity
Öfor obtaining a new
mate within a day or two.Ē.
Singular hayseed,

© Jon Swan

Idyll with Siren

Between the cat’s hopeful appearances, creeping through snow,
this tree-sparrow flock, these slate-colored juncos
pick at the seed,
fly off, perch, flit back, feed, while
snow continues to fall at an angle.

As the cat, reappearing, cocks its head,
there is a rush for the branches,
a smart rapping of beaks against branches,
as if only normal after a meal.
Attentively ignored,
will the cat fade? It chooses to.
A siren goes off in the town below.

As a result, perhaps, two cardinals arrive – this flame and its shadow.
Crested, splendid, the male pitches his torch
among brown crisp clubs the oak holds onto,
tenacious as the rich.
His fire doesn’t rub off. The pair descends,
picks at the seed,
flies off, perches, flits back, feeds, while
snow continues to fall at an angle.

As the cat, reappearing, cocks its head,
there is a rush for the branches,
a smart rapping of beaks against branches,
as if only normal after a meal.
Attentively ignored,
will the cat fade? It chooses not to.
The siren is silent in the town below.

As a result, perhaps, the cat is black.
She creeps like smoke
over deeper snow.

© Jon Swan

The Flight Lesson
(for Peter Kane Dufault 1923-2013                    )

By keeping an eye on hawks
falcons how they fly
how they give every sign
of enjoying the sky
its freedom the freedom
it preserves to this day
for those who can fly
soar plunge and rise
again and dance yes
when it is the season
to dance to pick a mate
with sky-diving talons
locked testing the limits
of love

                     By keeping
an eye on such goings-on
my over-the-mountain,
over-the-top friend Peter
has over the years
developed sinews akin
to those who letís say
enraptor him and now
as the old manís hide fledges
born-again plumage itís hard
to keep him from trying out
his feather-and-hollow-bone
flight suit see how it flies
And oh Lord there he goes
poem by poem   aloft

© Jon Swan

Circle, with Penguins

Large wings rush past my window too fast to see
the body they bear.
My flying children!
To have lived long enough to have flown
and to have given up flight.
To take one’s turn in the circle of fathers.

The earth turns away from the sun. The long shadows spread out into the night
and in the woods the birds settle down for the night, their songs tapering off
into silence. Large wings rush past my window too fast to see the body
they bear into the dusk. Bats flit around the tops of the tall poplars
and once again I am amazed that mice should have learned how to fly
at the price of being blinded for life, and, even more, that these birds,
resting now, started out as reptiles, that their feathers were scales once.

The earth has turned away from the sun and my children turn in their beds,
already dreaming, flying perhaps, thanks to that most ancient nub
of the brain, the reptilian leftover which, each night, takes over,
and a procession of birds marches into my mind, one by one
removing their tall hats to stand silently, their hands at their sides,
as if at some formal occasion: the birth of a child,
the death of a man. They recognize me. I recognize them.

These are the Emperor penguins. They have lived long enough to have flown
and to have given up flight for a life in the sea. Each winter, however,
“we march inland over a landscape of ice to lay eggs which must never
touch ice, because they would freeze then. We receive the egg on our feet.
Far from the fish-thick sea, we stand there, starving. The cold would kill you.
We form a circle, each taking turns shuffling into the warmer center
of the circle of fathers until, at last, the hatchling is born or is not born.”

Large wings rush past my window too fast to see
the body they bear.
My flying children!
To have lived long enough to have flown
and to have given up flight.
To take one’s turn in the circle of fathers

© Jon Swan

Heaven and Earth

It was a circle when I heard it first,
mid-March, about ten years ago,
of songbirds, lost,
I thought, circling in confusion in the night.
The sky was overcast.
I couldn’t see a single star.

I stood there, face up, following the sound,
my head circling like the birds,
around and around.
They must be thrushes, a flock of them, I thought,
too early, northbound,
and feeling, as I felt, the cold,

and excitedly conferring up there.
It was like standing in a bell.
Then they moved higher.
They are climbing, I thought, gaining altitude
before leaving the air
above me empty as a church.

It was then that, swung once more, the bell broke
and fell, ringing all around me
a new music,
the sound now as if each of the pieces sang,
liquid and ecstatic,
of unearthly generation.

It was, I thought then, the sound of heaven.
When it was over, the sky
silent again,
it seemed to me the dead had celebrated
overhead, and withdrawn,
not to return in my lifetime.

March proved me wrong. Snow fell but the same song
circled up through another night
and fell, ringing,
and often, waking to moonlight, I heard it
as winter turned to spring.
It had to be a single bird.

Now, ten years later, I have learned its name.
Each March I watch to see
the woodcock skim
the ground, turn and spiral up to build his bell,
then break it up and come
down through his music to the earth --

a very plain bird, plump, with a long bill,
useful for unearthing earthworms.

© Jon Swan

When Wren,

dun Dominican
out on a limb,

effervesces, blesses

days, its
spider-light Horowitz

Scarlatti flights

our common summer air
to gossamer.

© Jon Swan


 Arioso for William Russo
 (American composer: 1928-2003)

No creature or created thing
lacks music.
Stones take time but finally sing
as sand. Fire's lions roar
in forested whole notes of,
admittedly, another order.
the diapason of underscoring streams,
ered glaciers tick
like metronomes.

No creature or created thing lacks music,
though you may never hear its song,
the hummingbird.
This sing-
ular caesura, whole-note pause
on wings which, hovering,
“look like blurry gauze,”
has yet to be heard
fróm.  Pointed,
iridescent green with ruby throat,
it moves with telepathic speed
at sudden emerald halt,
as now, with nectar-sipping bill,
it probes the vowels
of tubular flowers.

 Tropical migrant to our piney northern air,
of summer and green familiar
of the stillness from which, and against,
all music rises -- breathtaking dart,
    weave in our midst
          your slightest nest of web and down.

© Jon Swan

The Cardinal Is

in green trees   blood red
the pennant of desire hoisted
Yet this blaze doesn’t threaten to spread

Yet green trees that stood still
appear now to ring and circle
this single flame of bright arrival

And each in contradiction
shows more red   grows more green
as woods   taking aim   move in on

Him wings will save   But for such men
no refuge is   nor any protection
Unless the fire   Unless the sun

© Jon Swan

Angel Food

Sole order of angels left on earth,
they carve the air, divide heaven
into invisible pieces

as if to share in communion. 
At ease in the gale, skimming
the swell, they pluck

squid rising, fish fleeing, or
this indestructible angel food
scooped from a mass

of plastic trash, world’s waste
cast into the sea. Ah Christ,
how is the albatross

to know that the great Pacific
its presence blesses has turned
toxic? Angels of grace,

forgive us. We do not mean
to kill, to kill, to kill.

© Jon Swan


You will not even notice our departure.
The small, falling like plump leaves
among the fallen leaves,
will lie indistinguishable, each with its song
locked in his throat.
The large, unable to climb, to soar,
will invisibly die in their high places,
which only the few sure-footed among you could scale.
Only the tame, safe in your cages, will, for a time survive.

We have, it would seem, outlived our purpose,
whose strokes in the sky taught you symbols
to preserve what you thought.
In those days, we seemed lines drawn by a wise god
as we flew, flocked,
presaging more than a change in season.
Each savior in turn had his holy bird,
his practical, heavenly messenger descending
  to peck a seed from the car or to seal some voice as divine.

We, who announced the birth of each sun,
who once were, to the discoverer,
true sign of the unseen,
longed-for land ahead, now may announce no new thing
save this darkness
which we, at your bidding, must enter.
We fall, as pit-birds fell, silent.
Their silence was always clear warning to you to turn back.
But you, hacking at shadows, still fail to hear us though we cease to sing.

© Jon Swan

People and Bats

donít mix. These light mice
that have learned to fly
at the price
of being blinded for life wake
an old fear. The quick
duck of the head, hands covering hair,
is instinctive. Even by broad day, the sight
of clawed wings stuck
upside down on a wall
can make our thin skin crawl.

brings them flapping out of hiding
like bad dreams. Like fear.
like this fear
that far overhead, beyond
the known sky,
something blind
and unmanned
we cannot see or stop
already drones or is silently gliding.

They dip
and swerve, guided by squeak
and ear. Their erratic
flight resembles that of the butterfly.
Bat, chauve-souris, Fledermaus,
there is something freak-
ish about them, as there
is about us,
who alone among primates walk upright.

© Jon Swan
I. Flight from Manhattan
IV. Arrival & Departures
VI. Satirical Verse